Monday, April 4, 2011

Heart of Darkness

Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad, is one of the most well known works among scholars of classical literature and post-colonial literature. Not only is it thought provoking and exciting, but also considered to be one of the most highly stylistic in its class, blending its use of narrative, symbolism, deep and challenging characters, and of course a touch of psychological evaluation that Conrad is well known for. To get a full grasp of the novella, one must first understand the history behind the Congo and its colonization by the Belgians.
As a result of ruthless colonial exploitation, involuntary servitude, and direct violence, the native people live in an impoverished state. As many as six million Africans died during the brutal rubber trade, overseen by the Belgians. Many are forced to be "carriers," for people on jungle expeditions that need to move cargo from one place to another. These packages they carry on their backs, on rough footpaths through the jungle, weigh between 40 and 70 pounds. There are few, if any, breaks to stop and rest. It is a hard life, but this history sets up the action behind the drama in this book, as far as helping to smuggle ivory out, or carry supplies into the jungle nation. The recurring theme of darkness (a symbol for the reality of the society) and fear perpetuate the action, and utimatly envelops the characters that struggle with this dilema such as Kurtz. The message is the same however: colinization destoys at the native peoples expense, close-minded European views perpetuate racism in these nations, and evil is a driving and yet sometimes unnoticed force.
Joseph Conrad was born in Berdichev, Poland in 1874. He first became familiarized with the English language at the age of eight, because his father translated works of Shakespeare and Conrad became interested in them. He was a very smart child, and did quite well in school. He further studied in Cracow and Switzerland, but his love for the sea beaconed him to explore, sail, and learn a new style of life. In 1874 he took a job on a ship, and thus begun his lifelong fascination for the sea and sea travel.
After traveling around the world a bit, he got involved in gunrunning in the West Indies. He liked to gamble, and because of this addiction he racked up huge debts which led him to attempt suicide. His brush with death opened his eyes, and he then realized that changes needed to be made in his life. In 1878 he found himself in England, where he spent the next 16 years of his life in the British navy. This had a profound impact on his writing, and it really developed and deepened his passion for the sea. However, his sense of adventure had not yet faded away, and he found himslef in 1889 as a captain of a steamboat on the Congo River. He always wanted to go to Africa, and was drawn to her like his passion for the sea. His experiences there are what inspired Heart of Darkness(1902), and many people do not realize that he knew the Congo well, and actually spent some time of his life involved in the conflicts of the land.
Conrad later returned to England in 1891 and worked as a sailor til 1894. He then retired from sailing and spent the rest of his life writing. He married, had two sons, but lived on a modest budget. He was a poor, and frequently got into trouble, but kept on writing. Finally he received some recognition for his work in 1910, and this is when his financial situation began to improve. However, his health was failing, but his pen grew stronger. He kept on writing and became quite popular in England. They even wanted to knight him in 1924 but he refused. He died that same year.
Conrad's contribution to the world of literature is profound and indifferent. Many people see him as just another writer, but to those who study post-colonial literature he can be seen as a beacon of hope and truth. He is telling the story so people can see what colonist do to the land in which they colonize: take it over, pillage, and destroy. Conrad was ther and witnesed the entire process, and it angered him to the point of no return.

Conrad can be linked to many authors that write about post-colonial literature. One author that finds truth in Conrad's writing is Chinua Achebe and the novel Arrow of God. Not only is the setting similar, Africa, the similarities of how the natives are seen and persecuted by the colonist are unprescidented. Achebe and Conrad both use the word "savage" as a term to describe the native people, because this is how they were seen by their opressors. Granted, neither author believes these people to be savages, but throughout both pieces of literature the natives are degraded both verbally and phisicaly. The natives are seen as expendable and therefore the quality of life given them is not as important.
Conrad uses the character of Marlow to utilize his own thoughts and perceptions of the people in the Congo. He continually ses them being beaten when they fall carrying packages, Europeans antagonizing them from boats as they travel past river villages, Kurtz commanding them around like a batallion of troups. He is angered by this and tries to change it, but by the time he gets to Kurtz it is too late because he has been pulled in by the darknes and is sick and pale. Marlow personifies a voice of reason, goodwill, and light. Kurtz personifies evil, darkness, and destruction. It even gets to the point where Kurtz is having the natives worshiping him as a God.
Achebe similaly tries to utilize a character as a voice of reason, but it is too late. The natives trust the Europeans that come to the village, and they are basically destroyed. The goal is similar: to show how colinization perpetuates racism (see link below on the essay writen about racism by Achebe) and destroys traditional culture by use of assimilation. But in both cases, it is simply too late in the process for their characters to change things.

Conrad did navigate the waters of the Congo. He never wrote about it until he returned home to England where he wrote Heart of Darkness in 1902. He did keep a journal, and some of the excerpts from his journal can be found in the novella.
The desolation of the land described in the book is an actual account of locations seen by Conrad. Over the years he spent there, he traveled the land and was shocked by the poverty of the Congo due to lack of funding.
.Another important artcle of criticism is Ian Watt's Conrad in the Nineteenth Century. It discusses several points and reinforces some of Achebe's work. He did a whole series of essays on Conrad and they are highly revered. They would be great supplimental reading. Watt suggest that Heart of Darkness is Conrad's first symbolic work, but also the only symbolic work done by him.
Symbolism runs ramped throughout the piece, and it is suggested by Kimbrough that, "Conrad's earlier narritives are primarily objective, descriptive, and thematically clear; Heart of Darknesstends to be interior, suggestivly analytic, and highly psychological. In short, it introduces a new mode into Conrad's ficton: the symbolic."

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